A mesh Virtual Private Network (VPN) enables you and your team to share direct peer-to-peer (P2P) communication securely over a public internet network. Through a series of access points, the mesh network operates like an invisible web, constantly changing and adjusting to support continuous coverage and data transmission.
Overall, mesh VPNs distribute the burden of user activity more efficiently than a traditional VPN, providing a more reliable, quickly scalable, and highly self-regulating network solution that is ideal for remote teams.
Mesh VPN vs. Traditional VPN
VPNs transform any internet network into a private members-only space, relying on authentication, encryption, and tunneling to form a staunch wall against unauthorized user access.
As remote work becomes more popular, business owners don’t want to expose their companies to the risks associated with sharing data over unsecured public Wi-Fi networks. Thus, VPNs are a popular means of creating a private company network that can be accessed from any location. They also work hand-in-hand with Voice over Internet Protocol systems to secure voice and video call connections.
Traditional VPNs run on a main server that acts as a central gateway for all data. This is known as a hub-and-spoke model, where all of your data traffic—including files, emails, and VoIP calls from one team member to another—gets routed through the primary intersection point before reaching its destination.
The problem with this is that if the main server goes down, everyone loses access to the network. Likewise, if a cyber attacker gains access to the system, all user data becomes vulnerable.
Another major complaint regarding traditional VPN technology is its unreliability. Specifically, since every data packet must flow through one central hub, sudden increases in traffic can create bottlenecks that slow down performance. If this happens during peak hours, for instance, users will be battling for bandwidth and get frustrated by network latency as a result.
Of course, you can sometimes restore network performance by turning off your VPN, but then you leave your network open to outside threats.
A mesh VPN, on the other hand, offers a distributed topology, spreading accessibility over the entire network through a series of access points called nodes. Originally developed for military use, mesh technology was created to solve the problem of spotty connectivity in the field, keeping team communication secure and smooth in any location. Categorized as a P2P model, the strength of a mesh VPN lies in its ability to route information among multiple pathways—which is much more efficient than routing through a central managing server.
On a mesh VPN, each node is its own access point, ensuring continued internet access for all users even if one loses connectivity. Instead of routing information along one pathway from the main server to each user, data travels from node to node along the fastest route available at any given moment, supporting faster service even with multiple users on the network.
With the traditional hub-and-spoke VPN, your central server gateway sits in one specific location. The farther you travel from this central hub, the slower and weaker your connection will be—especially as more family or team members hop onto the network. The solution offered by mesh VPN implements more hubs and/or nodes, creating a stronger connection across a wider space.
Smart devices such as phones and watches can act as nodes—and so can routers, desktop computers, gaming consoles, and additional servers. Together, these can all help create a convenient wireless network capable of providing reliable coverage across all areas of a home, an office building, or a remote working location.
In truth, mesh VPN still uses at least one central server—called a control plane—where system-wide updates and changes are made. From there, system admins can customize various network settings, implement security measures, and adjust which nodes can communicate with each other. Keep in mind that you don’t have to manage this system yourself, as several VPN providers offer cloud-hosted options.
With a full mesh VPN, all nodes can transmit to one another directly, whereas a partial mesh network coordinates specific node pathways. Just like the system server, each node can be individually programmed, creating an ideal environment for testing new software and small-scale security features. If successful, they can then be applied across the wider network without exposing every node to security vulnerabilities.
Downsides to Mesh Networks
Despite how mesh VPNs address many of the issues associated with traditional hub-and-spoke networks, they aren’t a perfect alternative.
First of all, latency can still be an issue in partial mesh networks where data is forced along a specific route. Second, since there are so many individual nodes to configure, mesh networks can also require a higher level of system expertise and ongoing maintenance to use.
Similarly, focused cybersecurity measures and regular system updates are especially important for mesh VPNs.
In other words, as your number of nodes increases, so too do your potential access points for hackers. At the end of the day, just one compromised router can allow malware to travel across the entire network—so your IT team will need to follow specific steps and best practices for maintaining a secure system.
When To Use Mesh VPN
The introduction of mesh VPNs provided a useful stop-gap solution for the increasing number of businesses moving toward a hybrid work model. By setting up remote VPN access, team members could work from any location using their home or Local Area Network (LAN) and access all shared private network resources. Today, many organizations still rely on this P2P model—which works really well for large teams operating from various locations.
Mesh VPN can also be configured to support an existing hub-and-spoke system, siphoning off some of the data burden to streamline the user experience. In fact, a hybrid system known as Dynamic Multipoint VPN (DMVPN) combines both the traditional and mesh approaches. With a central server acting as the primary gateway for incoming traffic, all intra-network communication occurs on the P2P network.
Nevertheless, larger companies with sizable IT budgets are ultimately moving toward more secure alternatives to VPN technology—and growing concerns over intra-network vulnerabilities have given rise to options such as Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) and Software-Defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WANs).
While mesh VPNs focus on walling out external threats, both ZTNA and SD-WAN technology implement security measures within the network as well. These approaches treat even authorized users as potential threats, only allowing access to specific role-based files and pathways.
That said, mesh VPNs remain a comparatively cost-effective solution for companies who need to share a reliable network and aren’t particularly concerned about the storage of highly sensitive data. At the end of the day, mesh system complexity—while greater than that of a traditional VPN—is much more manageable and easily scalable than ZTNA and SD-WAN.
So, while those alternatives are directly designed to tackle latency and cybersecurity issues, they are probably better suited for businesses with robust IT budgets, high-risk privacy concerns, and tons of users.
Four Signs You Shouldn’t Use a Mesh VPN
1. It’s Not Legal In Your Country
VPNs are legal in the U.S. and most other countries around the world. There are a few nations, however, that ban or restrict their use—such as China, Iraq, Russia, and North Korea. Be sure to double-check the regulations in your specific areas of operation before implementing this system.
2. Your Team is Small and Centrally Located
For home-based businesses and teams that operate within a smaller office space of around 5,000 square feet, a mesh VPN might be overkill. One central server may work just fine for your needs while requiring far less maintenance and effort to set up.
3. You Work with Highly Sensitive Data and Third-Party Vendors
Mesh VPNs are simply not secure enough to protect the data of certain companies in high-risk industries like healthcare, financial services, and government. Similarly, if third-party vendors, contractors, and other non-employee agents have regular access to your system, it’s a good idea to use an alternative approach designed to protect against internal threats.
4. Your IT Expertise is Low
A mesh network requires sufficient IT knowledge to set up and troubleshoot multiple access points—in addition to a control plane server. Make sure your team has the time and expertise to manage these ongoing tasks. Otherwise, the mesh approach may be more of a headache than a help.